clear eyes…

i read carefully all of your comments on our last two essayists, Michael Christopher Brown and James Chance….both received almost unanimous “thumbs up” votes from the readers here on the essays presented…both are working in the documentary style of “bearing witness”, and yet this seems to be a good time to point out how quite different are these two fine photographers….

first i would suggest that Mike created his own narrative out of simply his own desire to make an essay out of Sakhalin…there was no inherent or obvious “story” to be told….there was no editorial reason for an editor to jump up and say “yes, let’s do a story on Sakhalin”…it would not be number one on the IMPORTANT  list…but alas, the essay succeeds quite simply because Mike decided to do it…period….Mike made it important…..and he used his approach and his visual authorship to create a mood and a  “style” and  because of the power of the “vision” itself , a story has been told…

this is quite different from James, who had  a “built in subject” in editor’s parlance…..tell an editor that you have found a place where people live in a cemetery and eyebrows automatically raise….the subject is obvious…James just might pique your curiosity about the Manila cemetery even before you have seen picture number one….we are shocked automatically  because of the subject matter…period…the “story” is not created by James’ vision , but by the nature of the topic at hand….this is not to say that James was not “seeing”, but i think you can see the wide difference from an editor’s point of view…..

James photographed something that was THERE….Mike photographed something that was in his HEAD…i could easily imagine so many different approaches to the cemetery that would work, because no matter what there are people living in tombs…interesting by nature….i could also easily imagine many a photographer going to cold stoic  Sakhalin and coming back with absolutely nothing….in other words, it really takes a photographer with a point of view and a real “look” to pull of a Sakhalin style essay…and it takes a good journalist to create the multi-media piece James gave us…both totally valid..

James used pictures to TELL a story…..Mike used photographs to MAKE the story….

when editors at magazines choose one photographer over another for an assignment, these are things they think about…who is going to do THIS story best?  some stories are suited for one photographer, while others would be best done by someone else…in “movie speak” this is called “casting” and this  is not much different in photoland…matching photographer to subject and the expectations of results is what “assigning” is all about….if you were an editor, would you send James to Sakhalin and Mike to the cemetery?  do you think both would do great essays in both places?  hmmmm, something to ponder for sure….they of course would both be “good” if they traded places, but a magazine editor might think long and hard about this one…

now these are subjects that i have discussed at great length with both men…i have had the opportunity to sit down in person with James Chance on several occasions to edit cemetery , so he knows what i think….the same for Mike Brown…we edited Sakhalin at my apartment just before i published….both men studied photography at almost the same time from the same university and with the same teachers….Ohio University has over the years been a leader in producing talent for newspapers and magazines…and is probably the largest rival school for the famed University of Missouri….both schools go competitevly neck and neck with a long list of very successful graduates ….i have no doubt that both James and Mike will be two photographers on the “A” list for top editors to choose, despite their differences……who gets chosen for what will be interesting to see…

so i have a question for all of you, albeit oversimplified for the purpose of discussion…..

do you see yourself as a photographer who needs a strong clear subject in front of you in order to work,  or do you prefer to “invent” the concept in your head and carve interesting photographs out of “nothing” ???

336 Responses to “clear eyes…”

  • If I were into inventing stuff, I’d have become a stupid filmmaker in the first place.

  • I lack imagination, so I photograph what’s in front of me.

  • David,

    Thanks much for posting your perspective on this topic as you’ve shed some important light on a question I was dying to ask you in Perpignan, but I never seemed to have the appropriate opportunity to do so. As you know, I very much like James’ work and style and like James tend to shoot with a built in subject in mind. That being said, I would hope to think that my photography will evolve to a point where I can work on more conceptual stories from “nothing”.

    I also wanted to say that ever since the new format for Burn came in to being I found the conversations difficult to follow, but the new changes and your comments on the main page are a positive one and most welcome. I think I speak for us all when I say that this is the reason I was drawn to your blog way back when, so I look forward to more valuable commentary like this coming from you.

    Thanks again.


  • I never knew an essay could be written in the style of Sakhalin before I saw Trent Parke’s Minutes to Midnight. From that moment I would like to work on that style. It opened my eyes in photography. Stories could be anywhere, we just have to make them (am I right?)

  • editor’s eyes…

  • “do you prefer to “invent” the concept in your head and carve interesting photographs out of “nothing””

    this is my approach to photography, definitely!

  • David,

    I did not know where to place this and I don’t mean to hijack the thread. If it needs to be moved or deleted, I understand.

    I just came across this interesting piece this morning that a photographer put together about the ups and downs of being a photographer and being creative and trying to transform oneself and evolve.

    I thought the readers here might enjoy it.

    For those who watch, please give it a chance. The beginning is a bit strange, but it all makes sense and gets really good about 1:30 into it.

    It is posted on The37thFrame at

    It is called Transform.

    I will be back to comment your question later.

  • STOOP….

    didn’t i see a short film you did??? if what i saw was yours, then pretty interesting work….


    i am trying to set up an interview with Trent now…


    yes, yes…thanks…i think we will modify a bit the way we have conversations here so that it will all flow smoother and be more coherent….i think what we will do is to have no comments directly under the essay from now on…and have all conversation come on to dialogue….i can start a dialogue as i have done here based on the essay or in some way tie in a question to the readers based on the essay…that way everyone can still comment on the essay of course, but when the conversation starts drifting off (as it always does) , the essay could still remain at the top of the page nice and clean..

    “selected singles” can then be changed daily with one essay up top for several days…we will create new “real estate” on the right side for a thumbnail of the selected single…

    as it is now, i have to change the essay after 48 hours just to get the conversation back on track…seems like a weird way to change the conversation…whereas , if all our writing/commenting is under Dialogue, when the conversation swings away from the essay it does not seem so rough or, in fact, disrespectful to the essay…by doing this, i will also be able to work more closely with the photographer on her/his essay….this will still give us say 52 essays per year which seems quite enough i think…i can balance this with not only selected singles, but with profiles and other stories under Dialogue..

    Charlie, i would think by now we would be in a good position to start us editing an essay for you..what do you think???

    cheers, david

  • DAH- What you said about Ohio University and Missouri are the same conclusions I’ve come up with myself. I just watched both stories, and I think i wish there were captions for the Sakhalin story, but over all just looking at the imagery, both are very strong. The cemetery story is a great example of convergence journalism. I think when it comes down to the question which style speaks a story better in a given situation, being able to create a story from nothing too important, and finding and shooting a story of something that is important I struggle with it. Personally, I loved both subject matter, I’ve always wanted to explore Russia’s interior, where things seem vast and the population is small. So even though that’s not necessarily a big important topic to anyone, I think great things could come of it and I would definitely want a photographer sent who could see the the stories. On the other hand, If there was a story happening now, as it had been for many years as in the Cemetery story, and has probably been photographed in the past, I’d want a photographer who could make a moving story, great photos that show the difficulties and struggles. I think it’s one thing to just go photograph for a story, and it’s another entirely to see the story on the spot, and have the creative thinking to MAKE that story come to light. I think in both instances, both of these photographers are making stories, their the director and editor and producer… However, in the Russian story, it’s the editing that pulled a great story out. And in the Manila story, it’s the photography and actors.
    And the Oscar goes to…

    I wanted to ask a question of you David,
    In your experience, since you’re now a member whats probably the strongest photographer rights organization (Magnum) and having started out in smaller newspapers, what is your opinion on working as a staff photographer or either a newspaper or magazine since either generally means as a photographer you will not own the copyright? I have friends who, starting their senior year and now are graduated, work for a Gannett newspaper in town, however they’re told they’re freelance, but had to sign a work-for-hire contract, and received W2’s… I think that’s pretty shady business practice on Gannett’s end personally, And since they own the market in my area, there is no where else to go for experience. But, say for a recent graduate from a photojournalism program, what do you suggest a person is to look out for? I know Missouri has a new facility researching ways to save the newspaper industry, so in the meantime, how difficult is it to find Magazine work? Freelancing becomes a self business, and you have to do all of your own advertising, what’s the best way to go about this that you’ve discovered before Magnum?

  • DAH, I’ve worked in the film industry in a number of capacities, but never made a stupid film of my own.

  • both types of work will surely be undertaken by working photographers though.. in so far as i see the invented as illustrative and the factual as PJ work..

    i think both kinds of work have been undertaken here and hopefully there will be a stream of work in future which can straddle the real and imagined world i see..

    as far as editors go, if they see me as one or the other i don´t mind.. by next year i would like to be seen as the photographer to use when celebration needs documenting.. jeeze – all these carnival photos out there right now have my happy feet itching..


  • “do you see yourself as a photographer who needs a strong clear subject in front of you in order to work, or do you prefer to “invent” the concept in your head and carve interesting photographs out of “nothing” ?”

    I wonder if there’s a hybrid? I have a fascination with improvisation…jazz…comedy….abstract expressionism. I don’t know if photography can really embrace this but I do find myself most interested in photographers who seem to make it up as they go, starting with a seed and allowing their intuition, understanding of photography’s history and most importantly their eyes to guide them.

    I think this is where editing plays an huge role. Carving out the project in the editing room, looking for connections and new ideas. And then heading back out to refine and do it all over again.

    However, I do also have a tremendous amount of respect for photojournalists who can take the story in front of them and clearly document it in terms that communicate the vital facts.

    Look forward to hearing more responses.

  • well i first must say that the essays on here both mike and james were powerful and amazing. and i get a sense of each photographer in each essay. i think that is one of the most important things. and something david has mentioned since the day i met him. ” authorship…. authorship…. authorship” this has been the keystone in his teachings and in burn as well. for myself… allot has changed… i used to have to have a subject, story, place… all of this… but now i can see a new way of looking at things. i look and mikes work and i see that he did create something. something that i pay attention to as much as james work who had a subject in mind and had a story in place. this is something i am beginning to see. something i really like. so. do i need a place or can i make something out of my head?? allot has changed for me so i can see both ways now. and i think many photographers often need something for it to be a strong story. but that was clearly put aside my mikes essay. i think i see things that interest me. things that i am curious about and then i want to learn more. learn why. and that is often how it starts. usually i need a subject and a story. but more recently i find i dont. i can add my own little twist to things.

  • PETE..

    thanks for the video by Zack…a bit long, but should provide some good discussion….


    when i look at your site, i see filmmaker all over it…the problem with film is that it is just too damned expensive to just go out and do it…takes a lot of funding and a lot of people…but, even if you can figure out a way to do a “short” ( and the new technology should help) you might just feel really fulfilled…man, if you feel like being a filmmaker, you need to figure out some way to do it…and then you can change your moniker, because you sure as hell are not “stupid”….

    BRYAN F…

    of course, the “hybrid” concept is probably where most successful photographers are…i am sure Mike would enjoy a “subject driven” story and i have seen James do a pretty subjective essay in Bangkok…

    when do you arrive in New York?? i look forward to continuing our discussions here…


    i have one simple answer: DO NOT GIVE UP YOUR COPYRIGHT NO MATTER WHAT….you do not need to give up your copyright….and that was my answer way back at the beginning of my career as it is now…that concept did not come to me at Magnum…i had that locked in my head all along…i have known photographers who come to the end of their career and own nothing…no archive….no legacy…just a paycheck for 35 years…hmmmmmm, seems traumatic to me…

    YOUR ARCHIVE IS EVERYTHING…..better to work as a bartender and own your work than to be paid as a photographer and sacrifice ownership….both from a financial and an artistic standpoint…

    there is not much print magazine work…none of the magazine publishers have any production money..or not much anyway…this was true before the financial recession and has magnified in kind…that is one of the reasons we are trying to change the equation here on the net….who knows how it will all work out, but times of trial are also times when things really move forward…i am in the “let’s move on, move forward school”…i will waste not one minute of my time thinking “coulda , shoulda, woulda”..

    i always “advertised” myself in the simplest possible way (no promo cards etc ever)….i just always always always had a personal project going..sure, i shot some commercial things to pay the bills…but, at no time ever have i not had a personal project going that i could show an editor or publisher…figure out a way to do a book..this is your best “promotion”..there is nothing whatever it takes DO IT…

    i think i told you before, but it never hurts to mention it again…in the early years of your career, it is just going to look like “dire straits”…that is , if you let it….the business was totally crumbling before my eyes when i got out of college..worse than now…the two most major picture magazines in the world went out of business the year i graduated..there was NOTHING else at the time…it looked like the profession was OVER….

    this business is and always has been a struggle…and definitely not for everyone…and definitely not a “profession” at all….everyone must figure out the best way for them to use photography for fulfillment…that most likely will mean NOT being a professional photographer…if you decide to go the pro route be ready for lots of failure…the ability to get back on your horse after falling may be your most valuable asset….IF you can make it work you will have the most rewarding way of going through life imaginable…but, this will take lots of fortitude, a bit of luck, and a clear vision of exactly who you are….

    cheers, david

  • maybe..
    i invent concepts,
    in my head..
    and then try and seek a ‘strong clear subject’
    to illustrate my thoughts…
    it works the other way…
    I see a strong clear subject that
    causes me to
    a creative story…

  • David,


    Did you get my email question about the EFP grant?

  • ‘Magazine Editor’, two words, one word describes a domain, the other word a decision making body, both are driven by the same thing, the consumer.

    since the largest magazine demographic is the consumption first of the written word, then perhaps James would have the best ‘Chance’ at commercial success; his essay’s images would go well with a written story and i’m sure a journalist would favour James as a co-partner on a candidate story if she/he only had the two essays to judge and she/he didn’t know much about photographic aptitude.

    maybe i’m part of that magazine demographic and my money will contribute to the commercial success of those types of journalistic photographers, but they are not the photographers that create the photography books that i buy.

    i’m a groupie of photographers and photography, so when i think of my heroes many of them have little success with magazines, and almost entirely succeed through books or in magazines specifically tied to photography. i think the images Michael has created belong in books and would sail through the editorial process for magazines that feature photography first, words last.

    i do think James’s essay appearing to be a ‘this is what i saw’ effort might not be totally accurate; much in the same way someone could go to Siberia and come back with nothing other than a cold, James could have gone to the cemetery and bored us to death with all the poverty clichés; they must be as abundant as coffins. He didn’t, and although he didn’t make up his own story, he teased out the story that best appealed to the consumer’s best nature.

    but that being said i suppose there is recording what you see and better than that there is recording what we should feel, i think Christopher Anderson is dazzling at this latter aspect, rather than directly recording an event he seems to let us experience it by recording the people’s mood, emotion and reaction to the event, it’s sort like seeing the shape of an entity without ever seeing it, very emotive, but very indirect. But recording is recording and i celebrate that aspect of photography the least. For me all the action lies in pure creativity and pure vision, it’s when the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.

    For me journalism is far too lumbered with the rules of documentary rigour and the most ‘efficient’ way to drive home a point is the ‘best’ way to communicate. this constraint is not the case with the anti-journalist. The visual poet is free from all of this, but at the same time is easily lost in all the possibilities; they have to envision first something to say and then they need to go and find ways to say it with still-images, at its best, ‘candid-ish’ still images as they are the most emotive, and then, even harder, when they find those images, they need to harvest them into a still images to be part of the emotion they wish to convey.

    Having the ability to harvest a still image in a visually stimulating way takes loads of photographic aptitude. To create photographic poetry has this same pre-requisite, but also demands raw artistic creativity and vision.

    So i guess if i was a journalist and i had to take James or Michael out to create the visual information that would support my written information, well i’m sure i would be in a win-win situation, but if i could choose i’d want someone with both skills and if i only had these two essays to choose from i would clinically pick Michael.

    Unfortunately, i don’t think magazine editors want poets, they are too unpredictable, they want solders, i suppose this is why i don’t see my favourite photographers producing images for magazine articles! i doubt this will ever change, but i would love to pick up a magazine and discover that Roger Ballen create the photographs for an article about living in a cemetery ;-)

  • DAH – I’m in New York right now. Will be staying in Williamsburg during March.

  • I don’t think anyone who has seen any of my pictures, or read some of my comments here over the last year and a half, will be surprised when I say almost all of my conditioning has been towards focusing on “strong, clear, ready-made subjects” as opposed to “carving interesting photographs out of nothing”. It doesn’t mean I “prefer” the one to the other… and when I see work like Mike Brown’s or Kyunghee Lee’s (especially her color work) it makes me want to shake myself up, break down the conditioning, and try to see the world anew. One thing that has kept me coming back here again and again is that I appreciate being exposed to work that shows me possibilities I had never even considered. How I would love to become a little less ‘literal’ in my own work… but how hard it is to change the conditioning of 60 years!

    My mother was a painter, I grew up in a house with a lot of art books, dabbled a little in drawing and painting, I even spent a rather aimless year in art school once… but my passionate interests, from early childhood on, were history, geography, maps, languages, animals and natural history, and landscapes. In the visual arts I was most drawn to landscape painting and to illustration. To me, illustration was a great art in itself, but as I got older I gradually learned that in the world of ‘Fine Art’, illustration was looked down on as an inferior trade. That only made me suspicious of Fine Art, and I suppose I still am a little. From the late 19th century through the mid 20th, America was blessed with many brilliant painter-illustrators, like Frederic Remington, Howard Pyle, James Montgomery Flagg, Robert Lawson, etc. Winslow Homer is a little harder to classify- maybe he straddled both worlds of illustration and fine art(?). For many years my favorite illustrator was N. C. Wyeth, and it’s interesting to contrast him with his son Andrew Wyeth to see the dichotomy between illustration and fine art. It took me a long time to really appreciate Andrew Wyeth’s art as much as his father’s… but now I acknowledge his greatness.

    Over the years I’ve used photography a lot as a tool for research and teaching… and there again, it was often the more ‘literal’ stuff that was most useful and revealing for those purposes. I think maybe as a result my conditioning and biases in photography became a little too rigid and ‘hard-wired’ and too focused on photo-illustration… So, I will try to make a conscious effort to s-t-r-e-t-c-h my vision… expand my appreciation… and try to ‘loosen up’ my own work… but it’s doubtful that I will ever really cross the line from ‘literal’ to ‘imaginative’ photographer, and deep down in my heart, I’m not sure I would want to…

    Oh, speaking of James Chance’s ability to ‘crossover’ from doing a ‘subject-driven’ story to something more impressionistic and ‘subjective’… I loved his little photo sketch of Macao.

  • JOE…

    great piece!! thanks…

    i think that magazine editors do not right off the bat want poets…as you say, poets just tend to not be dependable enough to fit into the production schedule..besides, magazine editors will all tell you, just as you wrote, that they are NOT photography magazines….lovers of photography are not their audience….they just use photography as illustration for the most part …however, deep deep down inside good magazine editors DO know the difference between a soldier and a poet….and IF the poet can somehow manage to get through all of the maze of the “biz” , then occasionally a poem , or at least some very fine work, can find its way to magazine pages…but, not often…

    most photographers who use magazines as a way of earning a living, have no illusions about what the magazine will be for them…most see magazines as a RESOURCE, not as a final place to be published…this satisfaction comes from their books and their exhibitions…however, with the right attitude on the part of the photographer, one could see a long assignment (self proposed) as a mini-grant or whatever to get going on a personal project that would/could lead to a book…

    yes, Roger Ballen as an editorial photographer!! nice idea…

    cheers, david

  • As someone who is not (yet) a professional photographer, I most definitely fall into the latter category of concept inventor, carving photographs out of “nothing”.

    But even “nothing” can be something. It remains nothing if nobody pays it any attention. And, as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle state, it’s impossible to study/observe something without affecting it, so even studying “nothing” visually will change it into something…

    On the other hand, the few assignments I’ve done for a local magazine have been very liberating and enjoyable in that they gave me a chance to dig my visual teeth into a blank slate, challenging me to put my own take on things into photographs.

    So I think a balance of the “poetic soldier” would be something worth striving for.


  • BRYAN F..

    come over…i live in Williamsburg….475 Kent Ave buzz 607…i am here today and tomorrow….give me a call 202 413-1137….timing perfect, which is not always the case!!

    cheers, david

  • we enter the world tossed and tipping, an arrangement of mad light and unrecognizable sound and grow stiff and lip-limbed as we work our way toward an unending navigation of things….to breach the story that surrounds is only, only ever, a beginning and nothing comes from nothing and something need not something in order to bloom, for it’s all there, tin-thread and stick-dimed, in front of us and behind us and inside us….the same, always the same, story, the one in which we scramble to arrange, like pellets from Scrabble, to speak of something, or about nothing, which is still something….

    and how to give physical body to that which carves us invisibly. Inside the accordion flaps which is my photography, I have tried to capture with the blind basket of my eyes, those things which pass around, through and inside me, corporal or fleeting: bereft breathing. There is no truth in photography but in the sovereignty of the inner landscape of our life’s reckoning selves. We wane. We expand. We seed. We hunger. We are blind. What else can we do? We do not resist.

    everyone is a poet, for our rhymes and syncopated wobbles come from the same….

    the effort: not to divest, not to categorize, but to recognize, to expand and to embrace….

    fortunately, photography is larger and more fecund thant what we ever imagine or limit it by….

    my ambitions are much much less ambitious that whether or not an editor ever gambles on me (most never, ever do), but on a simple thing:

    how to find a way to make the work that i feel compelled to make and still put bread on the table, a roof pitched over my family’s shoulders and leave some kind of legacy or footprint for my son….

    a small pin-tap of light,
    the twist in the morning,
    a small, child’s tooth

    and in this, there are no differences ;)))…

    wobbly, running

  • p.s. and David (and my wife) are 2 of only 4 editors ever to ask for something of mine, photograph or writing, and so, with this batting average, i still to more simple things ;)))))….teach a few things and save money on not buying clothes ;))))

  • I dont know the answer to the question above. In the wild, ie NOT on a paid job, I look at EVERYTHING[and shoot most of it] trying to find SOMETHING. I rarely do. I wish I could do concept and essay, I have tried and failed miserably. So I guess I fall into the ‘wait and see what pops up in front of me’ school.
    I heartily DONT reccommend approach this if you ever want any peace of mind.

  • “everyone is a poet, for our rhymes and syncopated wobbles come from the same….”

    Eco spasm,
    Future shock,
    Kill the hawk.

    Photographically on the net, I’m like a bad poet, I’m everywhere! :-)


    please submit some of your work here…not just one…choose maybe 15 or so…i hope you saw my comment about your work earlier…

    cheers, david

  • I think it’s simplistic to say, “Don’t give up your copyright.” Photographers are not in a position to make demands these days if they want to work.

  • These two projects are VERY different yes, but as photographers I think everyone blurs the lines a little beyond personal style, esp. as we experiment through our development. Mike has shot more literal work than Sakhalin, and as Sidney quite rightly points out my “What Happened in Macau” piece is far from literal. This is all very interesting to me and i’m glad you brought this up. As I mentioned at the time the Macau piece was a hugley cathartic experience for me after coming off the back of the cemetery and HIV/TIB projects and breaking the shackles of very literal story telling.

    Personally I feel I evolve a bit more and add a new piece with every project. This has always been a very clear and linear progression for me. Like building blocks I have applied new creative devices to my work, quite literally over phases, one at a time eg. first experimenting with framing a lot, then working more layers, experimenting with refections, light etc. etc…. adding, adding new devices to the mixing pot until one is using them all subconsiously. Refering back to the Macau piece I saw this as another stage in my personal development—working more on feeling and a mood rather than literal story telling. This was most interesting to me as for the first time the progression was outside of the frame… this was my soul, not a visual technique.

    I am excited for what comes next… I hope in future work to be able to combine the literal and personal/non-literal in harmony. This is when the “voice” and true authorship manifests in ones work.

    Its always been a dance, and you have to keep adding new steps. My question to you David is does this plateaux? Does the progression stop? I’m sure it slows down… but do you keep adding new steps?

  • invent a concept in every moment and story ……always

  • You have been asking me this question frequently over the last few weeks David – not in the written form, but in photographs. Haven’t read any posts before I posted.

    Are we able to express ourselves in a photographic / photojournalistic essay or are we just supposed to be the unblinking mirror, held up to society?

    In its lifetime photography has produced many great photographers for us to admire. The standards that they set in pursuance of their craft still stand today as a benchmark of what is possible. What we must be careful of is that such standards don’t become, for us, shackles.

    Henri Cartier-Bresson used a Leica and B&W film: so must I, Steve McCurry almost-always uses a tripod: so must I. For photographs to be photojournalism they must be in B&W, be sharp from front-to-back and contain no obvious bias by the photographer: so must mine.

    History can be a burden. Where, in the above scenarios is there room to insert a little “me”. Should I practice photojournalism as some form of almost-religious ideal and put the “me” into “personal projects” you know, photos that don’t really matter, just the ordinary stuff.

    What I am increasingly seeing here at Burn and also when I look at the tearsheets from photo agencies such as V11 and Noor is that it IS possible to express yourself through your photography and still tell a truthful and relevant photojournal / documentary story. Moreover, it is ESSENTIAL to give your imagination and creative spirit full rein if you want to even attempt to explore some subjects. We have a sophisticated audience; intelligent people who not only want to know how a place LOOKS like but also how it FEELS.

    I like the sound of making photographs out of nothing: it frees me from searching for the Big Story.

    I have the Oasis song “Be Yourself” running in my head.

    Good question David.

    Best wishes,


  • Why tell stories at all?

  • I think its fun and exciting when I find or see something that I would like to photograph. I find myself being inspired by a place or an idea and the looking for a confluence of situations to create something interesting to look at. also I think I find that the work I maybe looking at by others, that resonates within me, will influence the approach I would take for a particular set or story.

  • David.

    I’ve usually pursued “subject based” projects. I think in some ways they can be easier because there is a framework and there is already a story to tell.

    The new project I’ve started is more of a concept, which is exciting but also a bit nerve wracking specifically because there is no framework. The story can practically go anywhere!

    But it is also extremely liberating because of the lack of a “story” It also frees up your shooting because you are delving into a concept rather than story.

    The only problem I find is that as well as being free to shoot the way I like; I know I will probably have to pare the images down to its essence otherwise it will lack focus. Conversely I could shoot all over the place and see how it works, maybe too many choices!!

    But the exploration is exciting. Hopefully this all makes sense!


  • Stelios,
    “Stories could be anywhere, we just have to make them (am I right?)” Yes, sounds easy doesn’t it?

    “i don’t think magazine editors want poets, they are too unpredictable, they want solders”. Yes, they want the “jobbing photographer” the one who they can send out in a morning with a list of photographs required, safe in the knowledge that they are technically proficient and talented enough to bring back the goods, no-matter the situation or weather. This takes great skill (I don’t have it) and if you are able to gain satisfaction from being able to do this work, very rewarding. I’d rather work in a bar.

    It strikes me as almost unfathomable that magazines and newspapers who employ some of the most creative writers don’t seem to assign the same importance to the photographs that accompany the articles. The “illustrations”. I say this because we as a species are very visually literate. We look at images in the form of television and film (movies) and are used to seeing sophisticated photography in magazines in the form of product advertisement. Surely the addition of stunning photography can only aid the written article and increase sales? Why doesn’t somebody try it? Is it the cost of newsprint?


  • Interesting topic, something I’ve thought quite a bit about recently.

    As a PJ student, I’ve really struggled with bringing back good, literal images of mundane events. I’m told by teachers to get a shot “that can run” and then experiment to my heart’s content. I’m not sure I’m actually capable of that though.

    In my experience shooting newsworthy, “big” stories, alongside pros from the dailies, and magazine people, I’ve been quite happy with the images I’ve brought back. They have a type of authorship, be it in a somewhat incubatory stage. They are different from the pros, not worse per se, and that experience gave me my first clue that I might see things differently, and that I could capture it photographically.

    Controlling that and duplicating the quality consistently is a different matter altogether. I fear taking “the shot that can run,” I’d rather get a real job than limit myself to that form of documentation.

    I personally think James Chance does way more than just document by the way, his photos are way over the baseline threshold of authorship, but I relate more to tackling a story the way Michael did in Sakhalin, whether there be a ready-made story there or not.

  • What a great question! I never asked it myself. Now I am curious why? Was it because it didn’t matter to me? Or was it because I just didn’t have a chance to try myself in both roles? Probably the latter, as this approach seems to me, if not reserved, then may be rather preferred for the commercial (aka journalism) type of work, and I’ve never done it. But I can not say that I’ve ever built a story out of my head. Definitely there are some ideas behind my series of photographs, but they are rather self evolving. I enjoy taking pictures and the more complex and not obvious they are the more I enjoy them. There is so much going on around that I find it is hard to concentrate on some may be productive but still limiting idea.


    simplistic?? yes, totally simplistic…clear…clean…Jim, you are just flat out WRONG on this one and you had better do your homework…photographers today are in every position to keep their copyright even on advertising shoots…the ONLY exception to this is newspaper staff photographers, but this is not even a career aspiration for most serious photographers these days…newspapers are going out of business fast, firing staff photographers who gave up their copyright!! see what i mean???

    i see young photographers starting in the business right this minute, like James Chance (30 something) and Mike Brown (twenty something)…do you think they give up their copyright??? why would you give up ownership of your creative work?? again, no archive at the end of your career?? sad that you think this acceptable….

    right this minute i am in a room with three photographers…one is 26, one is 34, one is 41….none have ever given up their copyright and they ALL earn their living as freelance photographers…

    MIKE R…

    please do not see history as a burden….history should be a guiding light…not that it can or should be repeated straight up, but the tone or the drumbeat can be admired and some version of it can be applied always….mostly, it can be expanded….molded to suit your to include new circumstances and your growth…


    it is not necessary to tell stories at all..story telling per se is only one function of the photographic form….i just happen to be referring to two story tellers, Mike and James, in this piece…


    there are always new steps..and i find that things do not really slow down…in fact, maybe things even pick up a bit…energy begets energy….

    cheers, david

  • David,

    Associated Press also grabs the rights both for staff and freelancers.

    Have you gotten my emails?

  • Jim:

    I will have almost nothing materially to give to my son, a reality that I recognize and as a father often struggle with. I have very very little to give him, outside of the love and values that hopefully i have bestowed his life with. However, the one thing that I have that I can bequeath to him are the books i write and the photographs that I have made. Value, probably very little, not only because I resigned myself long ago that what ‘worth’ my words and images will offer are negligable, but they are mine, and those of the only material things and corporal things of which may have value that I can offer him. Sure, if someone writes a story for a newspaper (which i have done before) or shot a picture for newspaper (which i have done) or shot something as part of the ‘job’ that they don’t feel an interest in, fine, but in now way would i for a moment ever, not ever, surrender the one thing of value that i have to proffer. It aint even about the ‘value’ of the photographs or the words, per se, but what copyright represents and stands for. When i am long after my ashes have been tossed into the wind, and there wont be a single person who knows a single photograph i’ve shot, my son will have to opportunity to do with those books and those strips whatever he wishes…and if they offer him some kind of material worth in the way of royalties or income, that i will have done part of what i wish to accomplish as a father. I cannot give him a house or expensive clothing or car or trips, or (fuck college is coming up) afford to make his university life comfortable, but i cant make sure that the one thing, or the 2 things i can do (write and photograph), remain mine so that I have the ability to give them to him….

    for me, it’s a very simple equation. It is not about some pompous artistic legacy, but about the legacy of all the fucking hard work i’ve put into the writing and into the photographs…and those, fucked up and all, are mine and mine alone to give and to earn something for my family and their future. Any photographer that gives their copyright away hasnt really thought it through enough, or haven’t been given the opportunity to think it through properly….

    aint no pensions brothers and sisters, aint now brilliant and posh home for retired photographers/writers…it’s a cold world and ;you gotta protect yourself for your future…

    David IS SPOT ON!!!

    i say that as a person whose family is fed by our work and i have no illusions about wealth or fame, but something much much simpler…..

    if there is one quote that I would wish all photographers and all creators of things remember here, it’s what David has said about copyright….

    should be written in stone….


  • DAVID,
    “please do not see history as a burden” – I don’t; I love photography and it doesn’t have to be mine. My point to aspiring photographers is yes, look and learn from the “establishment” but to your own self be true. Frolic and dance in your own vision and poetry. No fear, no boundaries; enjoy yourself!

    Somehow I can’t see you, David, as Establishment!



  • David, I’m sure retaining copyright has value for some famous photographers, and at one time stock photography was a seriously good way to make a living, if you shot constantly for stock and had a large enough library of images. But images are like water these days. Today’s photo is yesterday’s news, and not just in the newspaper business. I’ve never concerned myself with ownership of images. Photography has been good to me financially. But it’s because I saved and invested successfully, not because my images hold any inherent value beyond the pleasure I had creating them.

    Whatever I shoot today will be buried in a year under a million other images more current and offered cheaper than I could offer my own. Perhaps many here will become famous photographers whose work has inherent monetary value. The Internet has made this difficult, though. Once posted on the web, it’s old news to millions of people. Photography really must be its own reward.

  • BOB…

    many thanks amigo for being so eloquent with Jim, whereas i was too blunt!! that topic just fires me up in the gut, and it is hard for me to control my clear sentiments …you have it right on….

    MIKE R…

    thanks for that…and your optimism is so refreshing…

    cheers, david

  • an interview with Trent Parke (and/or Narelle Autio) would be well anticipated


    Jim, you obviously did not read what i wrote….i was not talking about so called “famous photographers”, i specifically wrote about photographers entering the business NOW….of course , photography IS its own reward…and i never said one word about “stock photography”…i am talking about a photographer’s estate…their archive..their retirement fund….what they have done their whole life…something to pass on to their heirs…that must certainly be one of photography’s “own rewards”, both financial and otherwise….

    good for you that you invested your salary i suppose and it worked out well….but, why should a young photographer squander the most valuable piece of “real estate” he or she owns??? real value born from the creative act of seeing…

    by the way, being posted on the internet does not take away from a photograph’s value..why oh why do you think that??? the top collectors print sellers are on the net all the time…..a picture on a computer screen has nothing to do with a fine archival print in the hand and on the wall…again Jim, please do your homework on this one…or, just go to the next Sotheby or Christies print auction…

    as you well know Jim, i did work for a newspaper for a couple of years…and i learned a lot about the world, about people…loved the experience, believe me…but, i sure knew from the very first day on the job, that there was absolutely nothing about the newspaper life and/or philosophy that had anything to do with the value of photography in its highest forms….and i do not mean to put photography on a pedestal either…but, the very BEST communicators with the mass public (the audience newspapers say they want to reach) have their work carefully archived so that it may touch people for generations to come…history my friend, history if nothing else…on the simplest terms we all photograph history…if the work goes beyond and is rewarded for its more artistic merits, so be it…

    Jim, i think you are probably a great guy….and i do know you…or, i should say , men like you from the newspaper…but please please when you are talking to young photographers i think it a disservice to let them think they must “sell out” to get by….it is just not make them believe otherwise just based on your own experience, and without studying the whole market today , just ain’t right amigo….

    cheers, david

  • ‘do you see yourself as a photographer who needs a strong clear subject in front of you in order to work, or do you prefer to “invent” the concept in your head and carve interesting photographs out of “nothing” ???’

    That’s a difficult one! I rarely seem to have a strong subject that I’m working on, though the more photos I take the more I can see various themes occurring, though I’m not sure if that’s something that’s happening subconsciously when I choose to take a photo, or if I’m just imagining ‘links’ when I look back over what I’ve taken over a longer period of time …

    My favourite photographers seem to have a strong clear motive behind their work, where they approach their subject in a way almost unique to them and their personality – the combination almost becomes their signature. For me, this is what makes a photographer great as opposed to good. I don’t know if this is quite the same as having a strong clear subject however …

    Need to think more about this – great question!

    All the best,

  • David,
    your comments in this post certainly spoke to my heart and mind. Your words are like a relief and at the same time they are a challenge to ask myself: What is my vision? Where do I stand? What will be my reACTION to all this?
    Times are tough right now. Newspapers struggle to stay afloat. Photographers are taken for a ride. Bad times for everyone and currently only the bravest have the courage to say: no more! Deep inside I am already saying good bye to this life of a news photographer, but I am like an oak tree who has deep roots. Even if you chop down the tree quickly with a chain saw, the roots remain very solid in the ground. That is my struggle. I hope and I wish I will have the strength and the guts to move ahead. Your words are a big help on this road!
    To answer your question: I am simply not good at envisoning a picture. Reality has always beaten my imagination. I simply like to look and so I photograph what is in front of me to capture the moment. And yes, a strong subject is a help, however I love the beauty that lies within the ordinary as well.
    Mr Harvey, you truly are one of a kind!
    Thank you so much for all this effort!

    P.S. In Germany we say: The most stupid farmers have the biggest potatoes. Please, no offence to anyone. Somehow we are all happy when we can harvest big potatoes ;-)

  • REIMAR….

    thank you for your comment…i think you should know that all of us struggle..and the times we are having right now will test each and every one of us and our resolve may be our only ally…one of the positive things is that the net has allowed us to all meet..share our mutual pain and celebrate all the things that capturing little slices of life around us does provide…

    i was considering your “deep roots” statement…you know moving ahead does not mean necessarily chopping down the in so many things in life, it is the obvious which is often not apparent…

    and it is also the obvious where the best ideas lay…so, think about this one…look right around you and see what might be an interesting photo project….so, yes, what is right in front of you might be exactly what would ironically allow you to “move ahead”…

    you might just go further by going “nowhere” then by trying to go “somewhere”…

    cheers, david

  • “but please please when you are talking to young photographers i think it a disservice to let them think they must “sell out” to get by….it is just not make them believe otherwise just based on your own experience, and without studying the whole market today , just ain’t right amigo….”

    David, you are, of course, right. But remember that you are one of the few photographers recognized among photographers universally by just your initials. Your perspective is perhaps as skewed as mine.

  • Jim and all:

    This must be prefaced by me saying that yes I do work for a newspaper and at this time everything I shoot for them they own. Except for the agreement that we came to at the start of my employment which says that I can use those images for any and all self promotion including a gallery exhibit of my work if it came to that. All I have to do is give credit to the newspaper. It is not the best deal, but it is the reality of working for a publication as a staffer.

    BUT, when I covered the professional golf tours for 12 years for magazines, I RETAINED OWNERSHIP of all images. Why was this important? I cannot tell you how much money I made from secondary sales of what even I would consider the most mundane average photo of a player. One simple image of Tiger Woods shot from behind on the first tee at the Players Championship pulled in $6,000.00. It was shot on assignment for a magazine. I owned it.

    I have close to 70,000 images in my archives covering the professional golf tours from 1987-1999. They are a historical record of the sport during those years. And while I do not get a ton of calls for them now, I can guarantee that there will be a time soon when book publishers will come calling to use images from my files for books about the players I shot at that time in their career just like when I was starting out they where doing books about Nicklaus, Palmer, Hogan etc, and looking for those historical images.

    “But images are like water these days. Today’s photo is yesterday’s news”……”Whatever I shoot today will be buried in a year under a million other images more current and offered cheaper than I could offer my own.”

    Wow. I really am not sure how to respond to that but I need to try. Lets start with every image made, whether it be newspaper photojournalism or some of that artsy stuff that I sometimes just do not get, is a photographic record of life and culture on this planet. It is history.

    There is a great example of value in not only retaining rights to all images you shoot, but also in SAVING EVERYTHING YOU SHOOT.

    Please take the time to ready Dirk Halstead’s “Monica Lesson.”

    The concept of retaining ownership of everything you shoot and keeping everything you shoot seems so simple I cannot believe we have to even discuss it here. JUST DO IT.

    Sorry if went off on a rant there….Hope it makes sense.

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